Santa Monica Boulevard Public Comment Form #Fail

To allow residents a voice in the reconstruction of Santa Monica Boulevard (in 2015) City Council took several steps. It made sure that news of this significant project reached every household via postal mailing; it budgeted $2 million for a consultant to inform the public and receive input about design choices; and Council established a ‘blue-ribbon committee’ of residents to oversee the whole process. But in a fumble characteristic of our city’s outreach the web form designed to collect feedback fails at that task. How difficult can it be to create and post a brief but effective web questionnaire?

Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction is a $16 million project with citywide significance because the design choices we make today will shape how we use the boulevard tomorrow. City Council recognized the value of public input into the design when it appointed residents to a blue-ribbon committee. And the chief means of receiving public input has been established in the web form accessible from the city’s project page.

The design options presented by the city’s consultant, Psomas, to the public include four discrete project options: inclusion of an 11-foot median (landscaped or not); single or dual Class II bicycle lanes; and an “off street bike/ped pathway.” These options are illustrated in six boulevard profiles:

Santa Monica conceptual design options
The conceptual design options as incorporated into possible boulevard profiles by the project consultant, Psomas.

Yet on the city’s comment web form there is only two available options provided: “landscaped median” and “bicycle lanes”:

Web form design choices

Why scope down the available design options to only these two choices? And why not include boulevard profile illustrations? (The $2 million outreach budget might even allow for a set of illustrations that show these possible scenarios after implementation.) Neither the city’s project page nor the web form offers any illustration.

The truncated options preference question is not the only questionable decision for this web form. It also asks about resident status, OK, but then oddly wants to know about proximity to the boulevard. It includes a drop-down menu with a few (arbitrary) responses:

Web form residency questionLeaving aside the imprecision of ‘block’ or why three blocks would be any different than four blocks, remember that City Council identified this as a project of citywide significance. The city reached out to every household. Presumably every stakeholder (regardless of proximity) has a voice. Should my voice speak less loudly than those near the corridor? Is my voice down-weighted in favor of northside residents? If not, why ask at all about proximity?

We asked about these deficiencies and an official acknowledged that this form is not optimal. That “better input” would come later, “once we have alternatives more fully evaluated.” But shouldn’t public input feed into any evaluation of possible alternatives?

The Takeaway

Beverly Hills sets no high bar where public outreach and communications is concerned. Notification is often a problem here and basic outreach tools (like the city website) go years without an update. Even when Council gets behind outreach in spirit (as it did for this boulevard project) implementation often falters on poorly-constructed surveys, bare-bones project information pages, and tools of dubious utility, like this web form. Behold the overall design with under-sized box for open-ended comments!

Web form for Santa Monica Boulevard reconstructionWe see two cautionary lessons here. First, there is a capacity deficit. Transportation and traffic engineering is a $560,000 program with only two officials responsible for long-range mobility planning. We can’t expect them to be web jockeys too. But we should expect more from a major capital improvement project outreach process with a $2 million outreach budget.

Also, we desperately need a mobility coordinator. Our transportation program’s goals include “transportation system enhancements and regional transportation initiatives in order to respond to mobility and safety concerns.” And multimodal mobility is expressly called for by our Sustainable City Plan (2009). But real planning mobility is a nonstarter here; we simply don’t have the expertise or maybe the inclination.

And second, where is the support for public outreach? The transportation planning & traffic engineering program is tasked with “the management of public outreach & conceptual design for the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project.” Perhaps they could turn to our $2.6 million information technology department to create a professional-caliber web form? A key function of our IT department according to our city budget:

Facilitate citywide and intergovernmental knowledge sharing and to ensure access to reliable, innovative, and cost effective technologies that will result in satisfied clients by providing comprehensive citywide information services and strategic professional services.

Whether it comes from a capacity boost to the transportation planning & traffic engineering program, or technical support from our IT folks for better outreach, or perhaps an assist from our $2 million outreach coordinator Psomas, we have the right to expect more from this particular public process. After all, City Council said so!